I love the little books in Continuum Press’ 331/3 Series. Each book is about an album of songs by a different artist. Some are straightforward music journalism – details about recording sessions, biographical information about band members, etc – while others are fictional imaginings of events revolving around a particular recording. I have enjoyed quite a few, and many more are on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I just finished a new book in the series, Pink Moon, by Amanda Petrusich. It is about the final album by Nick Drake, a British folksinger who released three albums between 1969 and1972, and died from an overdose of antidepressants at 26.
Pink Moon is the story of Nick drake and his music – for the first 2/3rds of the book. It then veers into an examination of the relationship between art and commerce, and the ethical issues of “selling out”. This is because of the 2000 Volkswagen Cabrio television ad “Milky Way”, which jumpstarted Drake’s posthumous career, and was a huge success for Volkswagen and Arnold Communications, who created the spot.
“Milky Way” was the first time most people heard a Nick Drake song, and Volkswagen put the ad on their website, with a link to purchase the album on Amazon. Sales of Pink Moon went from 6,000 copies a year to 74,000. The ad won praise for Arnold , but they also received hate mail from Drake’s fans who cried exploitation. Petrusich interviews many people involved in the making of the ad, including writers Shane Hutton and Tim Vaccarino from Arnold, Cinematographer Lance Accord (who shot Chevron’s new Human Energy campaign, as well as the films lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette), directors Valerie Faris and Jonathon Dayton (who directed Little Miss Sunshine), and ad critic Seth Stevenson. The conclusion that Petrusich and those she interviews seems to reach is basically that if the ad is aesthetically successful and in keeping with the spirit of the music, then it’s OK. Milky Way was so well done it actually changed people’s minds about the use of music and advertising, and for many reasons musicians today do not struggle as much with the notion of selling out.
Without any dialogue, we get the idea that the characters in the ad are thoughtful and introverted, and more sensitive than their conformist, beer-chugging peers. Petrusich writes “the manner in which it captured the notion of the outsider as socially and morally superior made it undeniably brilliant advertising.” But being an outsider for Drake was not a hip “lifestyle” or something to aspire to. He wanted his music to be heard, appreciated and played on the radio, but his depression and anxiety made it difficult for him to perform live or otherwise promote himself properly.